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In top-rank move, Red Sox make leader Varitek captain


AMID THE SPORTING clatter and din this holiday weekend, including another Packers comeback over the hapless Vikings, a referendum on the state of Michael Strahan's armpits and way too much airtime - TV and lung - for Shaq and Kobe, one apparent footnote out of Boston commanded significant attention:

Jason Varitek was not only signed to a four-year contract, but he was also named captain of the Red Sox.

The red "C" stitched on his jersey says a thousand words.

In a single act of honor and reward, the Red Sox remedied any lingering psychological repercussions of Pedro Martinez's defection to Shea Stadium. Martinez was a star, a diva. Varitek is all about commitment - to the team, to the city, to fans, to baseball. He was the key free agent who had to return to Boston. The feeling was mutual.

Now Varitek is the first Red Sox captain since Jim Rice and, before Rice, Carl Yastrzemski. That alone is pretty impressive lineage, but it goes way beyond the Red Sox and baseball. Captain is a special category of player in all of sportsdom.

Suddenly, Varitek was placed in a special pantheon as important if not more important than league Most Valuable Player, leading scorer, Gold Glove: Derek Jeter, Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paolo Maldini, Thurman Munson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnny Bench, Willis Reed, Gino Marchetti, Pee Wee Reese.

It is absolutely the right call.

Way past midnight, a very long time after the Red Sox had lost Game 3 and were facing sudden death against the dreaded Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, Varitek sat in front of his locker in the crowded confines of Fenway Park, his chair facing out to meet the waves of media, his demeanor sober yet patient, honest, available.

Long into the night, Varitek addressed any and all issues that now faced an organization that could barely afford to consider the reality of not only losing to the Yankees, but also getting swept.

Varitek's manner that night was one of calm assurance. The Red Sox were not done, no matter how many times the team was questioned about its work ethic, its future, its failures. Unlike Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez, Varitek never once used the possible playoff elimination as a platform to start lobbying for his next contract.

Kevin Millar gets credit for "Cowboying Up" and making "Idiots" of the Red Sox. Johnny Damon gave them a movie-star look and aura. Pedro Martinez gave them fight and fire and unpredictable drama. Manny Ramirez is the sure-hitting space cowboy. Curt Schilling the motor-mouthed mercenary in town to do a job.

All the characters who breathed new life into Boston's long-running baseball theater.

None of them Varitek. He is a player whose personal drive and ability melds perfectly with the goals of an organization and the hearts of the fans. He's not a winner as much as he is a leader.

It was nice to see Varitek making a deal before the Jan. 8 deadline and before agent Scott Boras could divide and conquer the free-agent market with Varitek, delivering him to the highest bidder instead of the team where he belonged. This felt like a marriage, not a shotgun wedding bathed in greenbacks, a la Alex Rodriguez.

Varitek is a captain, just as Boston knew it had a captain in Celtics players like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.

For 12 years, from 1980 to 1992, Bird was an NBA captain for the Celtics. In the 12 years since then, the Celtics have changed captains 10 times, which must say something not only about the transiency of pro sports, but also about the deterioration of sports as a bastion for the local "hero" to stick around, stand tall and deliver.

That's why the installation of Jeter as Yankees captain three years ago seemed to mean something. An organization's draft pick who stuck around to become a great player, Jeter has come to exemplify championship baseball, rising to the occasion, especially in October. Captain Clutch, indeed.

Kobe Bryant isn't a captain. Neither is Shaquille O'Neal or Ron Artest or Vince Carter or LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony.

The 76ers made Allen Iverson a captain, but only after the owner tried to trade him to the Clippers, a move tantamount to letting Iverson convince everyone he was a captain, instead of innately being one.

Barry Bonds isn't a captain. Sammy Sosa isn't a captain. Alex Rodriguez was briefly a captain, but only after Rangers manager Buck Showalter had to find a way to appease the disgruntled Rodriguez, who fled the franchise and Texas anyway.

Captain $252 million, almost in Boston, now in New York, where Derek Jeter isn't only the Yankees shortstop, he's also the leader the way Lou Gehrig was, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly.

There are captains in name: Antoine Walker in Boston, because the Celtics had to name someone, what with all that tradition of winning and leadership.

There are captains in waiting: Miguel Tejada, whose leadership is as vital to his team as his statistics, earning his stripes in one stellar season with the Orioles.

"His numbers pretty much match anybody in the league," Larry Bigbie said last season, adding that Tejada's leadership is such that "if we had to name a team captain, he'd be the guy."

In some sports, there are so many captains that the role's impact and meaning are lessened. In the NFL, for instance, defensive, offensive and special teams captains run out to call the coin toss but go back to the sideline to preside over one of three separate units.

In baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer, with manageable rosters and games that require fluidity and cohesion as much as strategy, the role of captain is far more valuable and stabilizing than symbolic.

Real captains aren't born or preordained, they're self-selected by their own ethic, then recognized because failure to do so would hurt the team. Then they're stitched with a big "C."

Seeing a captain like Varitek named to his post is a nice reminder of this very special category of athlete.

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